The Declaration of Independence and Philosophic Superstitions

It is common among our political elites and pundits to link the Declaration of Independence with Abraham Lincoln, who found in it the ground and telos of the American nation: the Enlightenment doctrine that all individuals are endowed with rights that precede and are independent of any political society.  To define these rights, we must bracket out all political tradition, because tradition is grounded in inherited authority, not in rational choice.  Since a rational man is governed only by those rules he has imposed on himself, he must free himself from the prejudices, biases, myths, and superstitions of tradition.  Only through an heroic act of philosophical reflection that logically (if not psychologically) brackets out these prejudices can he see things clearly.  The free mind—the truly rational mind—is one that has collected itself within a philosophical vacuum untainted by the prejudices and contingencies of tradition.

Inside the philosophical vacuum, the rational man discovers that he is endowed with inalienable “natural rights” to life, liberty, and property.  Upon entering political society, these rights can be restricted—but only with the individual’s consent, or that of his freely chosen representatives.  Lincoln, though unread in philosophy, had absorbed the rationalism of his age: “Happy day, when all . . . matters subjected, mind, all conquering...

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